End of the Boris bounce?

Peter KellnerPresident
March 31, 2014, 8:19 AM GMT+0

New YouGov research for Prospect suggests that Boris Johnson leading the Tory party would do little to improve its electability

We like him. He makes us laugh. He is so much more refreshing than other politicians. But do we want Boris Johnson running the country? Is he up to the job of taking the big, tough decisions? Is he serious enough to deal with a crisis?

Even though he is not even an MP, he is widely talked of as the next Conservative leader. The assumption – by friends and enemies alike – is that he is a huge electoral asset to his party. He would revive its fortunes if it loses power next year. After all, hasn’t he twice won London, a Labour city, by appealing to large numbers of Labour and Lib Dem voters?

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Fresh YouGov research for Prospect throws doubt in this. True, he would win back some Tory voters who have defected to UKIP – but he repels some Conservatives who doubt that he has what it takes to be Prime Minister.

Eighteen months ago, YouGov provoked much of the talk about Boris’s nationwide appeal with a poll showing that the Tories would be doing far better with him as their leader. When we asked people how they would vote in a general election with the current party leaders, Labour (40%) enjoyed a six point lead over the Conservatives (34%). But when the same people were basked how they would vote were Boris the Tory leader, Labour’s lead fell to just a single point, 38-37%.

That poll, however, was conducted during the Olympic Games, for which Boris claimed much of the credit and secured acres of publicity. We have recently repeated the exercise. This time the Boris bounce virtually disappears: the Conservatives (32%) lag five points behind Labour (37%) under Cameron – and four points (33-37%) under Boris. Instead of an athletic bounce, we have a statistically trivial twitch.

The big reason for this is that since the Olympics, Cameron’s appeal has gone up while Boris’s has slipped down. We repeated a question we asked then about a range of leading politicians – are they well suited or not to being Prime Minister? Back in August 2012, views on Cameron were evenly divided: 46-46%. Today he has a net score of plus 7, with 51% saying he is well suited, while 44% disagree.

In contrast, Boris has slipped from minus 18 (36-54%) to minus 22 (35-57%). True, he remains ahead of Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and other leading politicians. However, what should worry him is that his support has fallen most sharply among Conservative voters, from plus 28 to plus 14, while Cameron’s net rating among the same people has risen from an already remarkable plus 82 to a figure that might have impressed even Stalin: plus 93. (That loyalty contrasts strongly with Ed Miliband’s and Nick Clegg’s ratings among their own party supporters: plus 39 and plus 32 respectively).

This helps to explain why the prospect of Boris leading the Tory party does little to improve its electability. While one in five UKIP voters say they would return to the Tory fold were Boris to replace Cameron, one in ten Tory supporters would desert the party. Taking into account all the movements – including the one in ten Lib Dems who would shift across to the Conservatives if Boris took over – then a little over two million voters would change their votes; but these make up two groups who broadly cancel each other out: around one million who would leave the Tories, and another million or so who would join, or rejoin, the Tory ranks.

What is it about Boris that attracts some voters but repels others? We tested this in two ways. First, we posed a question we ask regularly about the main party leaders. We listed a number of attributes and asked respondents to pick out all those that applied to each leader. The comparison between Boris and Cameron is instructive. Among voters as a whole, Boris wins hands down on charisma and does slightly better (or less badly) on honesty and being in touch with the concerns of ordinary people. On only one does he lag Cameron significantly: on being good in a crisis.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that two-thirds of the public have something positive to say about Boris (66% pick at least one attribute, while 34% say “none of these” or “don’t know”, compared with fewer than half of the public have Anything good to say about Cameron (46%-54%).

Among Conservative voters, what is striking is the contrast between the “human” and “leadership” characteristics of the two men. Boris is ahead on charisma and being “in touch with the concerns of ordinary people” – but Cameron wins big on “decisive”, “a natural leader” and “good in a crisis”.

Secondly, we tested a number of criticisms that Boris’s opponents level at him. One stands out, and it is a real problem for him: “He is not serious enough to be trusted with big national decisions”. Voters as a whole agree by two-to-one. Conservatives are divided. Half of them disagree, but a worryingly large 41% agree. Were he to re-enter the national stage, he might also have a problem quelling fear that he puts image before policies, and doubts about his exotic life (though he’ll doubtless be relieved to learn that this worries women less than men). But his biggest challenge will be to persuade people that he has the gravitas to lead the nation.

His other challenge will be to get his timing right. On one hand, many people are unhappy at the prospect of him standing for Parliament in next year’s general election, a full year before his term as mayor expires. It could look cynical and self-serving. On the other, if he does NOT stand, Miliband wins the election and Cameron stands down as Tory leader, Boris won’t be eligible to contest his party’s leadership election.

One way and another, the next 12 months will test Boris as never before. He has developed an image that is the envy of most politicians. But his is a particular kind of popularity, well suited to a mayor with limited powers in a cosmopolitan city, but not necessarily to a man who aspires to revive the fortunes of a struggling nation – or to one who seeks the right, in terrible extremis, to have his finger on the trigger of Britain’s nuclear arsenal.

This commentary appears in the April issue of Prospect

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